Just when you thought it was time to take off your masks, it might be time to put them back on — the crazier and wilder the better– at Tokyo’s best modern day masquerade ball.
Department H is, broadly writ, a fetish party that takes place on the first Saturday of every month in eastern Tokyo. The party doesn’t start until midnight, about when the last trains leave Uguisudani Station, and it goes on at least until the first trains just before 5 AM. Basically, once you’re there – you’re good as stuck.
Those who dress for the theme get a nice discount on the entry fee, so naturally, the conbini next door looks like Halloween in Shibuya with slightly more latex, harnesses, and exposed skin.
It seemed like a good sign that the day I went happened to land on April Fool’s Day. Early on, a kindly tour guide of sorts found me in the crowd. Newcomers and casual attendees are more than welcome at Department H, but the regulars can still spot a newbie among the familiar faces (or familiar costumes). An older, skinny Japanese man in a trucker hat spotted me, said hi, and struck up a conversation. He looked like he had just gotten back from a job operating heavy machinery with his old flannel button down and well-worn jeans.
It seemed rude to ask but at some point we got to the topic of the dress code. He complimented my outfit, I thanked him, and finally asked the burning question I had since I saw him in all his trucker hat glory: did he usually not dress up?
He leaned in and said matter-of-factly, “Actually, I’m wearing women’s underwear.”
Trucker Hat has been coming to Department H regularly for the past 10 years, only a fraction of the 30-odd years that the event has been active. The pandemic has squeezed the event—most nightlife was shut down altogether at the beginning of the pandemic, and even when the clubs opened back up, they were still required to maintain less than half of the pre-pandemic maximum occupancy levels. And even after crowd restrictions were lifted to pre-pandemic levels, attendance remained low.
But on this day, business was booming and the floor was packed. “It’s good to see Department H busy again—this is one of the busiest nights I’ve seen in a while.”
The open borders into Japan are a likely boon for the event, as Department H is a bit of a destination for the tourist looking to go off the beaten path.
This night alao happened to be the first Department H after the national mask mandate was lifted. Still, around a quarter of the people were wearing masks, and of those, many had incorporated them into their costumes. For an event like this masks seemed to serve a variety of purposes: fashion, anonymity, and of course, health.
Some details about the early history of Department H were beyond what he could confidently tell me, so he introduced me to a veteran member of the staff. She was in drag and double masked, and she had the wires for her walkie-talkie clipped onto her bright red, sporty dress.
She explained to us that the founder, Gogh Imaizumi, lived in the United States for a number of years and was struck by New York nightlife in the 70’s and 80’s, particularly the BDSM clubs.
(Gogh, by the way, is a talented visual artist and designs the posters for the event in his signature pop-art/comic book style. He even had a design collaboration back in 2018 with Zima, which happens to be the alcoholic beverage of choice for JSRC editor-in-chief Jake Adelstein. After a long, dark, mournful period where it was pulled from shelves, I stumbled upon it at a random Famima just today!)
When Gogh moved back to Japan, he decided he wanted to bring a piece of the club scene back to Tokyo. Department H started to become a regular event in the early-to-mid 90’s in Shibuya until it moved to its current home, the opulent-bordering-on-garish Tokyo Kinema Club in love hotel spangled Uguisudani.
Tokyo Kinema Club is unassuming from the outside. After the bouncer checked our IDs, a drag queen in a cowboy hat ushered us into the elevator that took us up to the actual entrance. Inside, just about every surface you can cover is covered with red and gold jacquard print up until a pale marble wall that curved around the spiral staircase where I had met my new friend. I had gotten so caught up talking that I hadn’t had a chance to actually go upstairs.
I said goodbye to Trucker Hat to go explore some more and thanked him for his hospitality. He thanked me for talking with him and that he hoped to see me again.
Before I headed upstairs he asked me “Would you let me give you the underwear I’m wearing? As a present.”
To date and with no trace of irony, this is one of the nicest gestures I have ever received from a stranger. I did decline – there wasn’t a lot of room on the clothes I was wearing to stash a pair of underwear without losing them, and I don’t really know what I’d do with them once I got home. But he let me take a picture of him to remember him by and we went our separate ways.
For me, it was back to the spiral staircase upstairs to the balcony area. There’s cushiony seats and booths upholstered in that same red and gold pattern from downstairs, arranged around white tables with a few ashtrays placed on top of each one. The ashtrays were filling up and the smoke was thick, especially as the night progressed. When I arrived there was only a slight haze in the air but by 3 AM it was getting difficult to see more than a few feet in front of me.
There were various groups set up at the bigger tables showing attendees the ropes for an array of kink-related activities: how to properly care for latex, how to arrange and wear leather harnesses, safe practices for kinbaku (shibari bondage–literal ropes).
But once the stage lights change and the performances start, all eyes move downstairs. Drag artists emerged from behind a gold curtain and floated down a flight of stairs, taking turns strutting down the catwalk extending into the audience. The balcony is the best place to sit down and watch the show, but the floor is where the energy is.
Following that was a lively wrestling match between two people in lizard masks which supposedly turned into a softcore sex show. Unfortunately I just barely missed the plot twist while watching a small group of people clad in leather harnesses and G-strings form a human pyramid.
I re-joined the crowd when the samba dancers took the stage, all feathers and neon and rhinestones in a blur.
But some of the best costumes were those that were off stage. Someone everyone noticed was a man whose self-made outfit was constructed with a dizzying variety of underwear. He was covered in a patchwork of satin, frills, ribbons, and appliqués, with an elaborate, towering headpiece of hanging underwear fixed to the top of his head.
He wears this to every Department H he goes to, although naturally the outfit has gone through many iterations of improvements. Somehow, he had gotten tiny lights to shine through some of the fabric, which rendered the overall effect a bit like that of a bioluminescent jellyfish.
I also met a middle aged, long-haired, bespectacled man in a robe holding a candelabra. He was with an exceedingly normal-looking middle aged woman at a booth selling items made by artists in the community. He had tapped me on the shoulder—“You’re a photographer? Would you mind taking photos of my band at our next gig?” He introduced himself as Sato, and on top of apparently being a guitarist for a band with fellow middle aged men, he worked this booth with the other woman every month. I told him that I’m not an actual photographer to which he was completely unfazed and undeterred so I gave him my contact info. Why not?
In exchange I asked him for a portrait and if I could use it for my article. He deadpanned “I will do anything for public attention” and swiftly, expertly, struck a few poses.
By the way, in order to move between the upstairs and downstairs floors, you had to walk by an exhibitionist sitting in a folding chair on the landing. He was very happily working his way through a case of sounding rods. From what I could tell by looking at the open case whenever I passed by over the course of the night, he had made some good solid progress on increasing the rod diameters. Good for him!
As a high traffic area, the landing seemed to attract other exhibitionists. Inside of a glass case built into the wall that might have once been an aquarium was a person leisurely masturbating. And standing a few feet away was a man wearing just a thin pair of shorts, a face mask, and a sign around his neck in English that read “Ladies, please Squeeze my balls”.
In very large characters across his torso he had the same message written in Japanese. Near his waistline where it said “下さい” there were two arrows pointing down with a heart doodled between them which, reading into it, may have represented either love, goodwill, or his balls.
He was rather soft-spoken and used polite, genial Japanese. I apologized for my less polite Japanese, and when I explained that I was from the United States, he lit up (as much as someone can under a full mask). He had visited San Francisco some years back and loved it. He went sightseeing during the day and went to kink events on some nights, but the highlight for him was walking around the city with his full getup on— shorts, mask, sign, Sharpie. It was a pleasant surprise to find that many people were interested and were happy to fulfill his request. The ones who weren’t interested just looked the other way– no big deal. He’s planning another trip this year.
Department H is a major hotspot fetish party in Tokyo (and Japan in general; some make the pilgrimage from outside of the city), but with that comes a broad range of kinks and fetishes among the attendees. In fact, he went on to explain, it’s actually quite rare to find someone who shares any overlap with you. So while it seems like Department H is a paradise for people with non-normative sexual interests, the lack of specificity can make the party lonely at times. He shared with me that, despite all of the people walking by him, there weren’t many people who had talked with him aside from a few of the other regulars. Tokyo is a big city, but he believes that the kink community is smaller, and the interests are somewhat less diverse.
That being said, he emphasized that Department H was always full of the nicest people, and I had to agree. I can’t say I’ve ever been out to a club or party where I felt as comfortable as I did at Department H.
Shyly, he asked me if I would want to squeeze his balls. I felt a little bad saying no, but he brightly said that it was OK—not everyone is into everything, and everyone has different comfort levels.
In fact, everything at Department H seemed to follow an underlying condition: only if you want to. I found myself in a crowd, forming a circle around a salaryman on the floor and a purple-haired woman whipping him with a cat o’ nine tails. After he had had enough, another man, this time with his shirt off, took his place and knelt on the ground. His back was already covered in fresh welts from a previous session earlier in the night.
Another circle formed around a man who was getting slapped in the face by one woman and getting his groin stepped on by another with the toe of her very large platform stilettos, with an intentionality and seemingly practiced technique that eluded me. The man next to me must have read my mind because he started to explain to me the best practices for stepping on someone’s genitalia. A few others in the circle, noticing our conversation, pointed at me and pointed at the man on the floor and asked me if I’d like a turn. Pedagogically, I found this rather sound: after theory comes the supervised practical.
As you might have already guessed, this would be my third time declining an offer at Department H. And like the previous two times, I was feeling impolite—and once again, no one seemed offended. They made the universal sequence of gestures for “no worries!” and “let us know if you change your mind!” and shifted their attention right back to the groin-stepping, this time with the needle-point heel of the shoes.
Stealing from my roommate’s analogy, later on, the closest experience I’ve had to this is when I was the new kid at school during recess on my very first day. Some kids asked me if I wanted to play pretend, a few asked me if I wanted to play kickball (ha ha), and someone asked me if I wanted to give each other Indian sunburns (terrible name, by the way) under the slides. Even though I ended up doing something else each time, I could always go back and ask “hey, can I join?” if I wanted to—and they’d almost always be happy to get another person in on the fun.
Learning isn’t all fun and games: Around 5 AM I said my goodbyes but quickly discovered that my wallet was missing. I bounced from staff member to staff member to figure out what happens to lost items and where the closest police station was that I could go to. It was a process that, at 5 in the morning, felt not entirely dissimilar to facing the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Or fighting seven evil exes. For me the number was smack in the middle with five very kind and well-meaning fetish party workers.
(There are two police stations, almost precisely equidistant from the venue. None of us could figure out which one was the one the organizers would hand any lost and found items over to, if at all. I gave up.)
I left a little after 6, blinking into the terrible morning sunlight. I was worried that someone at Department H had stolen my wallet, and worse: that they had put a stain on my otherwise wholesome night at the fetish club.
It was in my roommate’s bag all along.